For a while, when I was at school, I used to hide myself away in the local library at lunchtimes to block out the whole miserable experience. I remember one of the books I used to read from cover to cover then all over again was a Pele autobiography. Even then, Pele had long been retired and I, probably, had barely seen him play. In the late seventies, there was barely ever live football on TV, outside the major tournaments, but I, and every football fan I knew, thought of Pele as the greatest of all time. But none of us had really ever seen him.
Pele first came to the world’s attention at the age of seventeen in Sweden in 1958. You can still find grainy footage of the scrawny young teenager looking formidable, alongside his very talented team mates. Then disappeared into relative obscurity for the rest of us until the next World Cup in 1962 and then the one after that in 1966. Pele would be injured in both of those tournaments, kicked off the park by opponents who couldn’t get to him any other way.
By the time Mexico came around in 1970, the world was now in colour. When we watch the highlights of that Brazil team, with Pele as its beating heart, we feel the sway, the excitement, the difference of a team playing the game in a way we’d never seen before. But I was three and I never saw it. By the time I was sitting in the library, secretly eating my sandwiches, I was convinced they were the best team ever, and Pele was the best player. Paradoxically, what seems to have made his legend was not that we had witnessed his genius on a regular basis but more that we had not. Myths are grown this way.
I understand the desire to declare someone the Greatest of all Time, be it Messi, Ronaldo or Chic Charnley. But it must surely be a matter of taste, a completely arbitrary award. I remember Argentina 78 very well, with all the shame and joy involved but it was in 1982, when I hit my teens, that the World Cup became an obsession. The first one that hits you is always the best ever. I can’t imagine anyone being better than Zico or Junior or Socrates. Or even Paulo Rossi or Marco Tardelli. Even the names give me a chill. But I’ve no more right to say that any of them was the best ever. They were ‘my’ best ever though.
If you think that Lionel Messi is the greatest player ever then he is. For you. You’ve perhaps watched every football game he has ever played. Modern TV access allows that. But the Santos fan who watched Pele week in, week out probably has another view. Puskas. Stanley Matthews. Jim Baxter. And I haven’t even mentioned Diego.
I shouldn’t get as irritated as I do when I hear pundits claiming that the ‘Best Ever’ debate very often involves Messi v Ronaldo v Mbappe or whoever. Because if it is one of those to you, then that’s fine. It’s just that we often dismiss the lived experience of past generations who saw players of such brilliance, out of view of the TV cameras, that we can only read about in a library. At lunchtimes.